Practicing law in the South, especially in Charleston, SC, is remarkably genteel. In fact, the practice of law in Charleston is so well-mannered that in 2001 the ABA Journal ran, as its cover story, an article regarding southern collegiality and practicing law here in the Lowcountry. Of course, there are always exceptions, but overall our Bar prides itself on supporting one another and acting as professional colleagues and not as professional antagonists. To echo that sentiment, members of the South Carolina Bar must take an “Oath of Civility” toward one another and to members of the public. Unfortunately, lawyers throughout the country are not exactly revered for their congenial nature or their civility toward each other. To make matters worse, TV, movies, and dramatic fiction play to an audience that expects lawyers to shout at the witness during cross-examination – “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” The unfortunate “truth” is that even in the real world, many lawyers market themselves as being “aggressive” or are endorsed by other lawyers as such.
If you look up the word “aggressive,” you will find definitions that include “ready or likely to attack or confront,” “pursuing one’s aims and interests forcefully, sometimes unduly so,” or “characterized by or tending toward unprovoked offensives or attacks.” Being “aggressive” is not the same thing as being “zealous.” “Zeal” is defined as “great energy or enthusiasm in the pursuit of a cause or an objective.” Zealousness is an admirable attribute; aggressiveness is not. Here is why:
1) Aggressive Lawyers Are On The “Short-List” – Judges don’t care for “aggressive” lawyers. Ask any judge, and they will tell you that they are worn out from baby-sitting lawyers who cannot get along with one another, who quibble over the most mundane aspects of their case, who accuse other lawyers of misdeeds, who complain about imagined slights, who hold hard-and-fast to deadlines without accommodation or courtesy, and the list goes on. Lawyers who place themselves on a judge’s “short list” of intolerable lawyers are doing a great disservice to their clients. Regrettably, many of the lawyers who place themselves on the “short-list” are either oblivious to (or “willfully dense” to) how their attitude negatively impacts upon the court’s scheduling of matters, the court’s receptiveness to the lawyer’s concerns (“Cry Wolf Syndrome”) or even, at times, the court’s rulings.
2) Aggressive Lawyers Get As Good As They Give – During our careers, we have let other lawyers out of default or extended firm deadlines as a professional courtesy. We can hear the aggressive lawyers’ comment now – “You gave up your client’s advantage in exchange for courtesy!” Not so. We can unequivocally state that in those cases, the outcome was positive for the clients and, in some cases, made more positive by acting professionally. Of course, there will always be those parties, or their lawyers, who foster a hard-line approach to the case. However, perhaps a better practice is to set a positive tone from the beginning before you come out swinging the day the client walks into your door. If you set a negative, aggressive tone from the outset, then do not be shocked when opposing counsel does not return your phone calls, does not grant you any extensions you request, does not work with you to complete discovery, etc. In all, what goes around does, indeed, come around. Hopefully, in all your years of practice, you will never miss a deadline or make a mistake. However, if that day should come, it would be best to have a reputation as being respected and a “lawyer’s lawyer” than to be the attorney to whom everyone else is looking to dish out a little “payback.”
3) Good Lawyers Don’t Just “Try” Cases; Good Lawyers Try to “Resolve” Cases – Before we hop down off of our soapbox, there is one last point to be made. In the end, “scorched earth” policies and aggressive behaviors do not benefit our clients (except in the movies). Family law attorneys can probably attest to this fact the most. Aggressive behaviors run up legal fees, destroy any real chance of cooperation between parents, and leave children as the victims of litigation. The same is true for civil litigation. Sparing with opposing counsel or writing threatening “paper tiger” letters or emails is, in a word, useless. Whether you disagree with opposing counsel, or you just don’t like their politics, venting your frustrations, lobbing insults or threats, or engaging in aggressive behaviors does not change the facts or the law of your case. Agree to disagree, spar like professionals, and kept your reputation as a “zealous” and a “professional” lawyer intact. In the end, you will earn the admiration of both the bench and the bar. Moreover, your clients will applaud you for your success and not your rancor. As we say here in the South, “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”